Fred Searles: CCU graduate is a student of lifeby Mona Prufer
Fred Searles needed a little assistance negotiating the walk across the stage at Brooks Stadium to get his degree on May 5. His hips have started giving him "a little trouble" lately, but at age 79, it's barely slowing him down. The oldest graduate from Coastal Carolina University was receiving his fourth degree, two of which are from CCU. He's also applied for the Master of Arts in Writing program in the fall, which could lead to his fifth college degree.
"I'm retired, so I'm not in a hurry," said Searles, whose first degree was from Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. (bachelor's degree in economics), where he played basketball, baseball, track and field and warmed the bench during football season. He also was one of seven juniors who made Medusa, the college's most prestigious honor society.
His other degrees were earned at Columbia University in New York (MBA) and CCU (a master's degree in elementary education and a bachelor's degree in political science with a minor in theatre).
When he moved here in 1996 after a 30-year career in life insurance, Searles had plans to teach elementary school, maybe math, but he couldn't get a job so he decided to go back to college because "I really love school." He had taken community noncredit courses, but found "I wanted the grade." So after getting the education degree, Searles decided to go back and pursue a political science degree with a theatre minor. Along the way, he was bitten by the theatre bug.
He loves it so much that he considered going for the BFA in musical theatre, but he says he can't sing or dance well enough.
Searles has been in four theatre productions at CCU, including "Flight," a dance production where the director put him at the very end of the show following the younger students who "went flying through the air," in Searles' words. "I came out and did six steps, toe-heel, toe-heel, toe-heel. The audience loved it."
He was also in "Spring Awakening," playing the part of a pastor, and as a night watchman and pastor in "The Philadelphia Story," where his few lines were 78 pages into the 120-page script. "One thing I've got is patience," says Searles, who is probably best known for his role as Wylie Post in the theatre department's production of "Will Rogers' Follies." As the famed aviator, Searles, wearing a bomber jacket, stood up in the audience and yelled, "Hey, Will, let's go flying!" The audience loved it. (Post and the Rogers were killed in 1935 when the aviator's plane crashed on takeoff in Alaska.)
It was appropriate attire and context for the former Air Force jet fighter pilot who worked in Air Defense Command during the Cold War in the mid-'50s. Searles was stationed at Thule Air Force Base in Greenland, the Air Force's northernmost installation, some 600 miles from the North Pole, with orders to attack any stray aircraft from Russia.
Searles and his wife, Pat, live in Myrtle Trace retirement community where they are involved with the Myrtle Trace Players and the Myrtle Trace Community Chorus. They met at a hot dog stand in Geneva, N.Y., where they are both from, and it's a second marriage for each. They have been married for 15 years and do everything together. Searles even gave up golf because it "didn't seem right" to leave Pat for hours at a time.
The couple came to the beach for spring vacation in 1996, experienced vacation-shattering "horrible" weather and spotted Walter Cronkite's face on a billboard promoting Myrtle Beach as one of the top retirement areas in the country.
"We put $500 down on a place, and here we are," says Searles, who was also a fan of the late broadcast journalist.
When asked what his time at CCU has meant to him, Searles is quick with an answer. "You cannot imagine the welcome the younger people have given me over the years," he says. "The assistance and the respect." He tells about how students in theatre movement class helped him get up off the floor and about how they helped him up and down a stage "hill" that caused him some difficulty.
His academic experience has been nothing but good, he says. "I don't know what I would have done if not for Coastal," says Searles.
When asked about the down side of his experience at CCU, Searles still talks about his theatre studies. "Memorizing lots of lines really scares me."